How private funding can change the way we think about public education

Annalisa McPherson, then 5, works on a math game at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland in this 2013 photo. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Annalisa McPherson, then 5, works on a math game at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland in this 2013 photo. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

For decades — and still today — public schools in Maine have been funded overwhelmingly through property tax revenues and state educational subsidies.

But those funding sources are under constant pressure from taxpayers and lawmakers seeking to trim budgets and save money.

The draft Portland Public Schools budget for fiscal year 2017, for instance, factored in a $2.7 million cut in state aid — the kind of sharp change not uncommon from year-to-year.

[MORE: Maine school leaders confront projected cuts to state aid next year]

Generally speaking, when schools are faced with the prospect of funding cuts, they circle the wagons around core subjects and classroom essentials. The state uses what it calls the Essential Programs & Services model to determine what each district receives in subsidies, and funds the necessities, but it doesn’t come close to funding what even the state would consider a comprehensive education.

The above-and-beyond extras — classroom visits by performing artists or authors, field trips, school gardens, etc. — are often what make schools more inspiring places for children, even if they’re not included among any public funding formula’s necessities.

And that’s the area where some public schools are seeing a shift toward the world of private funding — a resource that whole departments of people at the public university level have been relying on for generations, but which has remained largely untapped at the K-12 level.

“You just love to think that something like that along the path is going to provide a spark for a kid,” said Kate Snyder, executive director of the Portland Education Foundation. “Studies have been done that do correlate a student’s engagement in [extra curricular or enrichment] activities with stronger performances in the classrooms.”

The Portland Education Foundation is the nonprofit organization that does the private fundraising work the Portland Public Schools doesn’t have the staff or expertise to do. And on Wednesday, the foundation is launching its first coordinated fundraising campaign, with hopes of pulling in at least $50,000 by June 30.

The foundation has been in existence for several years, but it has only in the last year or so become more closely aligned with the district, reconstituting its board and linking arms with school leaders to make sure the private funds dovetail with the district’s academic goals. (Four of the group’s 2015 grants were disbursed for projects related to units focused on birds, for instance.)

This is a good segue to point out how donations to the foundation translate into potentially inspirational opportunities for students. The Portland Education Foundation’s primary means to distribute private donations is its teacher grants program, through which local teachers can apply for money to pay for equipment, guests and experiences to enrich their classroom lessons.

As you can see, the amount of private donations funneled into Portland Public Schools classrooms through the Portland Education Foundation has increased every year since 2009, and the need — as evidenced by teacher applications — has climbed sharply since 2012.

In addition to the teacher grants graphed above, the foundation administered a $17,000 grant from L.L. Bean last fall to develop multilingual learning guides to distribute in the city’s diverse schools — more than 60 different languages are spoken in Portland schools — and another anonymous gift of $200,000 annually to provide every public school student here access to the top local arts organizations.

[MORE: Donor pays for all Portland schoolchildren to attend museum, performing arts]

That funding total doesn’t come anywhere near, say, offsetting a $2.7 million state aid dropoff, and foundation leaders are clear to say their private revenue sources aren’t to be used for funding staff positions, building maintenance or other costs that really should be in a district’s core budget.

But it’s a significant and difference-making revenue stream that wasn’t there to such an extent in Portland a decade ago.

And one of the reasons the private funding conversation takes a bit of adjustment is that private donors demand accountability in a way public taxpayers don’t seem to.

Voter turnout for the annual Portland Public Schools budget referendum over the years has been paltry — in the low single digits, percentage-wise. Hot-button issues occasionally attract crowds to yearly budget hearings, but there’s never a threat that the public could, one year, decide the schools aren’t doing enough and withhold their taxes.

[MORE: With 1.5 percent turnout, Portland voters approve $103 million school budget]

But when each dollar in the revenue stream is being handed over across a table, Snyder said, there’s an expectation that the donor will receive proof that dollar is being spent wisely. Or they will withhold their money next time you come asking.

“Every year is a new year,” said Snyder, who previously served as the chairwoman of the Portland school board. “If you give me a $20 donation this year, there’s no guarantee you’ll give me $20 again next year.”

That extra layer of accountability is a source of pressure, but foundation leaders say it’s also an opportunity.

When two dozen volunteers fan out into the community to seek private donations to support public education, they must point to specific experiences and books or other class materials that students will have as a result of those gifts.

Those dozens or hundreds of conversations then create contact points, then a larger network, then hopefully a groundswell of public support that can affect the school district in a profound way.

The end game can be a community that better understands what’s going on in the schools and rallies to ensure high-level education continues in the city throughout the changes in city and school administration that have become common. That can mean more donations, but it could also mean more volunteers in the classrooms, more youth sports coaches and more input come budget season.

With the education foundation ramping up its efforts, Portland will find out in the coming years.

“Those community contacts and relations are vitally important,” said Mary Bennett, president of the foundation board. “If you have that knowledge base outside the district, that’s sustainable as people in and out of the district — no matter who the superintendent is, no matter who the principals are.”

So the byproduct of seeking private funding for public education perks is that the fundraisers have to launch a lot of little conversations to make that happen. Those little conversations create the accountability that most taxpayers dream of, and can build community support in the type of loyal, organic way most public institutions dream of.

It’s a different kind of grassroots work that may be good — or even transformative — for public schools.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.